Stories

Mother versus Writer: A Tug of War

April 29, 2015 Stories

by Julianne Palumbo

The place where motherhood and creativity intersect is a precarious one. I say this—two books, a magazine, and three children later. When I first started writing, my intent was to write for my children. I wanted to create the picture books that kept them on my lap begging for just one more. Was I jealous of their affections for Arnold Lobel and Judy Blume? Maybe.

As they grew, we continued to read together. It was our tradition, late summer, when the threat of a new school year made them wonderfully clingy. We’d sit outside on the patio couch with a pot of tea and read together for hours. Once, Suzanne Collins’ Gregor the Overlander series, in their older years, Mitch Albom’s Have a Little Faith. As they reached elementary school, I tried my hand at middle grade novels, actually writing one. Later, to keep up with their growth, I wrote four young adult novels, three of them in verse.

I would sit down to write each day after putting them on the bus in the morning and write nearly all day until they got home. What propelled me was the promise I made every morning to read them my new pages when they returned home. It was great motivation, the not wanting to disappoint them. I wrote profusely.

My writing audience continued to age as they aged. Maybe I wanted to be everything to them—their favorite mother and their favorite writer. But, eventually, I couldn’t keep up. Their writing tastes outgrew my writing attention span, and I turned to shorter things like poetry, short stories, and essays about parenting. In other words, more recently, instead of writing for them, I began to write about them.

It’s woven tightly, this motherhood-writer thing. Too tightly perhaps. When I write, I hear that little editor nagging from some unreachable part of my brain. She’s an incessant chatterer and, like the bossy voice on my GPS, if I could figure out how to shut her up permanently, I would.

Lately, as I write personal essays about mothering, my self-editor finds herself more verbose and opinionated than ever. “They aren’t going to like it if you portray them that way—I mean, he seems too nice for his age.” This she said about an essay I wrote when my youngest son decided to go into the neighborhood during a snowstorm and shovel driveways for free.

“That’s going to get her in trouble,” she said when I wrote about a coach who was particular tough on my daughter.

“Suppose a future employer sees that?” She quipped about a poem I crafted describing my oldest son’s tattoo.

I wrote them all anyway, and shared them, and my children still love me. And, their lives are not ruined.

Mother writers who write about parenting their children face a unique struggle, more than simply creating time and space to write. We play tug of war between writing about what moves us most intensely and preserving the privacy of those we love and have vowed to protect.

The older the child, the greater the tug because it is more likely that their peers could read about them. And, it’s not just privacy. It’s also the idea that our thoughts and feelings toward our children or toward their decisions or behavior are out there, for them to read as well. Protecting the privacy and feelings of their children has caused many a mother to tuck beautifully written prose into the back of the drawer to rest with the crayoned cards our children scribbled for us during their young years. On the other hand, raising children and living through some of child rearing’s most difficult circumstances can offer us a unique perspective that we want to share with others. Maybe our view will help someone else. We use this to justify the exposure, and maybe it does.

Perhaps, in no other context does a writer feel so strongly about both sharing and not sharing her words.

At the same time, our children, our greatest source of pride, of angst, of joy, are the well from which so much of our creativity springs. They don’t just produce our material; they are our material. Every day, my interaction with my children, or my observations of their interaction with the world encourages me to write. I write about them because I find their unique points of view so interesting. I relish the paths of their personal growth. It’s like a study in growing human beings—I watch, I turn them, I stare into them, I listen, I learn, I write. When so much of my focus is on helping their lives along in a positive direction, where else would I look for subject matter?

And, that’s what creates the greatest tug on the rope. Some of the best material just can’t be written, or can be written but not shared.

In the end, the protection side of me pulls my creative side into the muddy pit every time. I am mother first, then writer. My children’s feelings, privacy, future job security, love lives, etc. win out. With each piece, I consider whether it could affect them in any negative way. If I’m not sure, I’ll have them read it. No writing credit is worth damaging their feelings.

Besides, maybe a good dunk in that mud pit will drown my bossy inner editor and silence her for good.

Julianne Palumbo


Julianne Palumbo’s writing has been published in Ibettson Street Press, YARN, Literary Mama, Kindred Magazine, Poetry East, Mamalode, and others. She is the author of Into Your Light (Flutter Press, 2013) and Announcing the Thaw (Finishing Line Press, 2014), poetry chapbooks about raising teenagers. She is the Editor of Mothers Always Write, an online literary magazine for mothers by mother writers. You can find her at www.juliannepalumbo.com and www.mothersalwayswrite.com